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Obama named hope

Biljana Vankovska

December 10, 2008


With regard to the latest US presidential elections, like many times before, we as a public remain introvert and autistic in Macedonia. The only matters that Macedonians care about consist of the “name issue” (the dispute between Macedonia and Greece over the name), partisan and ethnic divides as well as European integrations. That is where our interest for the rest of the world ends.

The presidential elections were followed as far as they concerned the White House’s attitude towards Macedonia. Quite typically for a weak state that turns away from its responsibility to face the ugly truth about its being accomplice in the worst war crimes Bush left behind as his legacy, Iraq for instance. Thus it’s hardly surprising that Macedonia has been spared the wave of Obamamania and the faith in the “new dawn”, which is expected to bless this sad and ugly world. Unlike in the rest of the world, Barack Obama is seen as a nuisance and bad news, so now that “state intellectuals” are in great pain to help redefine Macedonia’s position in such a way that she does not lose Washington’s support and its recognition of her constitutional name.

Having noticed this, I don’t have any intention to claim that the worldwide enthusiasm is justified and well-founded. The skeptic – and, why not, the cynic in me - tells that the joy is premature and even exaggerated. Nevertheless, let me expose the arguments “pro” Obama that made me inclined towards him rather than towards his opponent. Knowing well the official history of the US, and even more its other less known sides (so brilliantly written by Howard Zinn) I could not resist the emotions that the scene of the impossible made possible run through the media. It was truly fascinating to see the awakening America, those long lines of voters determined to decide their political future (despite the fact that the US elections are far from being direct ones).

Charismatic and eloquent as he comes through, Obama is such a figure that can make us cry out of despair when compared to our “statesmen”. And finally, after the ‘natural disaster’ called Bush, it is not only easy to look at Obama trough positive lenses but one has developed a desperate need to cherish hope and to believe in miracles. Some American commentators already use an interesting metaphor to describe the new situation: Mordor brightens and a big leap is needed to transform hope into change.

In times of general euphoria it seems risky to be skeptical. The chorus of optimists gets wish to silence such warning voices, to label them as troublemakers, nonbelievers and cynics. Yet, I feel urge to publicly declare the reasons for my concerns:

1) The awakening of the US citizens is not a result of the persuasive power of Obama. It does not reflect any particular vision for a new just society. It has rather been the pain felt on their own skin that made them move. If during the Bush times the public support was based on the fear and need for security (from terrorists) now we are witnessing a mobilization because of fear from the economic crisis, poverty, reduced loans and credit cards limits. If American citizens get satisfied with their political spring soon and become content with Obama’s election, then it will be a sure proof that democracy without people is still in place.

This may be the ultimate proof of American theorists’ thesis that elites have an interest in keeping the people happy and focused on their wellbeing and everyday small worries, i.e. to keep them politically asleep. The moment things get worse they will be awaken, which is bad news for those elites. According to these theories, this makes elites more responsible and more efficient in providing for their citizens. The ordinary American has been living far beyond his/her resources, let alone the fact that his/her needs are often created artificially by the media and commercial campaigns. Having been used to live in relative comfort, s/he is now not only worried but also scared about her/his future living standard.

The elections clearly manifested people’s great expectations but it’s still questionable how far patience will last. Every reform is by default a long and painful process, and a colossal financial crisis is likely to create even more collateral damages and ‘transitional’ losers, before things turns to better, if they do. Austerity measures usually hit the least privileged – people in the developing world and citizens from the former socialist block, with their long experience in ‘economic reforms,’ know what that means.

2) In moments of celebrations over the ‘right choice’ of American citizens, one should pay attention to a couple of facts: Obama’s victory is not so convincing as it looks at first sight. Bearing in mind the catastrophic Bush legacy, it is quite surprising that as many as 48 % of the votes went to the Republican, McCain. The American public has always been relatively easy to seduce, sometimes with declarations given on a high ethical ground, other times based on fear-mongering. In each case it were the “others” (non-American populations from the world periphery), who were paying the price of the US global policy.

The surveys showed clearly that these elections were a sort of an ‘economic referendum’, which means that majority Americans are still prepared to live with national policy which requires the sacrifice of other nations and exploitation in order to secure permanently low gas prices and a relatively comfortable living standard. The lack of empathy is, of course, present within the American society that is based on huge social-economic disparities as something natural and in line with the dominant ideological matrix. Thus it may too idealistic to expect Americans in general to become more concerned about the rest of the world.

3) Obama is experienced as a social worker; he is a politician who comes from a party that is believed to care about lower social strata – and he “succeeded” to organize the most expensive electoral campaign ever, not only in USA but worldwide. With his undeniable charisma and intellect, the real Obama is still a mystery. We are just about to discover who he really is by judging from his moves and decisions; some of us in the Balkans find it a bad omen that Hillary Clinton and other people with relations to the Clinton administration are now surfacing again. What we can surely say at this point is that the myth of Obama has been born mostly thanks to the media. This has not been a victory of genuine participatory but of money and digital-democracy in the US.

4) When a Democrat such as Obama gets the largest-ever financial support from Wall Street, it is reasonable to ask: Why is this so? Will Obama owe big capital something in the future? And how shall he reconcile his electoral promises to both the poor and the rich? The poor may disown him, the rich may oust him. It’s hardly premature to conclude that there will be no dramatic changes of the public policies - Obama is busy saving capitalism and his human face.

5) The careful analysts have noticed Obama’s promises to increase the military budget, which does not go hand by hand with both the social programs and the peaceful foreign politics. Demagoguery is a usual part of any electoral campaign: voters want to be lied and the worse social plight, the bigger the expectations are. For the citizens of the world (who have legitimate concerns in the US politics because it determines their lives and destinies) some aspects are particularly interesting. For instance, Obama has been critical towards the Iraq war; yet, he has never said it was illegal and the Americans are responsible for gross violations of international humanitarian law. The ‘curse’ of the Democrats is that they have been responsible for launching more wars than Republicans. This is enough good reason for caution. Clinton’s legacy in the Balkans is something that the region’s inhabitants have to live with and the mentioning of Holbrooke’s name brings unpleasant memories (except for the Albanians).

People in the States and around the world already look ahead, asking themselves what is to be done now. The ‘audacity of hope’ is manifest here and now as well as the possibility for some further social activities. The American’s tendency to believe in Hollywood-like images and happy-end stories may be the greatest danger not only for their own expectations but also for the hopes invested by fellow-citizens across the planet. It is not Obama who should be responsible - but the voters who enabled his victory are now bearers of the responsibility not to stop with electoral democracy but to continue pushing for more and better policies.

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The prospects don’t look very encouraging, at least seen from a prism of a citizen of a faraway region. All we can see is the old tendency of exaggeration that transforms into uncritical exaltation: when Obama is being compared to Kennedy it is a clear sign that most of his worshipers neglect that historical facts that Kennedy’s perhaps main legacy was the Cuban crisis and the Vietnam war. The “Obama factor” means the possible regaining of self-respect and self-confidence by many American citizens who were deeply embarrassed and ashamed by their old President’s bushisms, religious revelation and practical moves. They can even feel relieved from another historical shame: they can trust the history of racism and segregation has been put behind once for all, although it may turn out to be not quite true.

As already said, the American nations looks divided along partisan lines. Yet, the political opponents impressed us by their fair-play, at least once the results were announced. It is something we cannot even dream of seeing in our young democracies in this part of the world with different understanding of electoral democracy and with lack of political culture, where political battles resemble real wars and involve real hatreds and divisions.

But on the other hand, our problem may be in the fact that we truly believe in political pluralism, while the American two-party system is just a décor for a reality in which only one party holds the power, regardless the electoral results. The critical and dissident voices, however, differ slightly: some speak about existence of Business Party, others of War Party. Actually, the truth lies in the military-industrial complex accompanied by the political and media mechanisms, which are unlikely to allow ‘a man with a dream’ to alter their reality.

But such a danger does not even exist; Obama, except for the color of his skin, does not differ from the other members of the establishment. He is likely to become a son of the establishment, a part of the system that needs to be changed but hangs on.



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